Pokémon has transformed once again with Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. What once started out as a 2D sprite-filled adventure for the Game Boy has now become a fully 3D open world experience that can even be played on your TV. It’s taken a few console and handheld generations to get here, with pit stops in the dungeon crawler and fighting genres, but the Pokémon franchise is finally what we imagined it could be back when we were six years old scouring the house for batteries so we could keep playing.
Let’s start with what’s new. As stated, Scarlet and Violet are fully open world. After leaving the tutorial area, you and your chosen starter Pokémon are free to venture anywhere in the world of Paldea. Gone are straightforward routes filled with trainers and tall grass that you most likely would avoid. Instead, you can tread your own path, engaging with trainers if you want and dodging Pokémon you don’t want to engage with. (I get it, Lechonk — you’re cute, but I already caught one of you!)
The freedom is certainly appreciated, and the novelty of actually observing Pokémon out in the wild never quite wears off, especially as how I didn’t play Legends: Arceus — or any new generation since Diamond and Pearl, for that matter. There is a certain lifelessness to some areas, however. Trainers are so scattered – and mostly static, just waiting for you to talk with them – that the world can feel empty at times save for the many groups of common Pokémon. I would have liked a little more dynamism to the game – randomness. NPCs actually moving around outside of cities would be appreciated. Maybe others students from the academy out on their own adventures riding bikes or Cyclizars and capturing Pokémon of their own.
The mascots of the new games fill a fun role in the open world. Instead of needing a bike or a Fly-knowing Pokémon to get around, Koraidon and Miraidon can take you anywhere you need to go. In a unique twist to the Pokémon formula, you encounter your game’s legendary very early on and they become your means of transportation across the world. It may look silly at times – why does Miraidon have wheels if it runs around on its four legs? – but I appreciate this unique addition to the games.
I certainly enjoy the open world and not being regulated to following a strict path in Scarlet and Violet. However, I often found myself longing for more linear routes and distinguishable areas at times. Battling is my favorite part of Pokémon games, and playing Scarlet I longed for those long routes that featured a gauntlet of trainers. Scarlet and Violet instead scatter potential opponents out too much.
I also found some of the areas to be a bit too dull and unremarkable. Maybe I’m just being bit by the nostalgia bug, but I haven’t found any area in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet to be as memorable as early forest areas or the cycling roads. In Scarlet and Violet you simply travel from one area populated by green grass, brown cliffs, and blue ponds to the next. The towns are just as dull as most have the same shops that are simply menus as opposed to actual buildings you can enter.
Pre-release marketing advertised three separate campaigns for Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, but I found this to be a simple rebranding of what we expect from a mainline Pokémon game. One campaign consists of the classic eight gym battles, another is assaults on Team Star bases (which feel like a less-satisfying version of taking on a Team Rocket hideout), and going up against giant titan Pokémon. The titan Pokémon were fun and the storyline surrounding that campaign actually had some character depth and emotion to a side character, which was appreciated.
For the gyms, instead of taking on a series of trainers in each gym to then face the leader, you must instead pass a “gym test.” Examples include delivering a forgotten wallet to a gym leader, a “race” down a snowy slope, and rolling a giant olive into a basket (I’m not kidding). Some of the gym tests just felt silly, others a waste of my time, and I would have preferred tough trainers to battle against. The ghost gym’s test was the best for me – a series of three double battles. I love the double battle mechanic and was disappointed that this was the first (and might be only) opportunity I came across for them.
Speaking of battling trainers – normally in a video game review, I’d spend a fair chunk of time discussing the gameplay. With Pokémon, however, by now you know what you’re getting into. The basics haven’t changed – grass still trumps water, ice freezes dragon, etc. Nothing in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is going to change your opinion on the series’ gameplay whether you love it or hate it. That said, I’ve very much enjoyed the simple battle mechanics of Pokémon since Crystal, my first foray into the series, and am very much addicted to the gameplay of Scarlet and Violet.
A new element in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is the terastallizing of Pokémon. Using a special tera orb, you can change a Pokémon’s type in addition to a cool crystal appearance. Sometimes Pokémon will have tera types different from their natural type, meaning a water type could have a tera of fire, an electric type a tera of ice, and so on. It’s a nice gimmick that can mix up otherwise standard fights as you may lose an advantage if you opponent terastallizes their Pokémon, or conversely gain an advantage if you terastallize your own. You can only use terastallize your Pokémon once in between visits to Pokécenters, so it never feels overused or boring.
Tera caves litter the map and they allow you to commence a raid against special strong tera Pokémon. Tera Pokémon can be taken on solo or with a friend, and playing Pokémon with another player is actually really fun. I’ve been playing through the game with my partner on the couch next to me, and it’s a delight to be able to link together to take on a unique tera cave. Tera Pokémon also wander out in the wild (as indicated by the Dragon Ball-like aura) and finding them leads to some of the most fun encounters in the game.
What really weighs Pokémon Scarlet and Violet down, however, is their technical performance. They run like dogshit, no two ways about it. I’ve played for 50 hours or so and haven’t encountered any glitches (of the annoying sort nor of the game-breaking sort), so at least the games have that going for them. But the amount of framerate dips, clipping, pop-ins, and lack of environmental polish and texture is astounding. Groups of human NPCs are only really found in cities, and the games consistently struggle to animate them moving around in the background. The “grass” and other flora constantly clip into your character and Pokémon. Whenever you catch a Pokémon, the the camera zooms on the Pokéball, highlighting the lack of texture in the world.
The pop-ins are the worst and most annoying. The environment, trainers, and wild Pokémon are constantly popping in with every step forward you take. You can’t ever sit back and relax while riding on the back of you Koraidon or Miraidon as a gaggle of Pokémon are always popping up in front of you, forcing you to make a hard left swerve to avoid encountering yet another Nymble. The game struggles to load all of its assets, detracting from the experience of exploring an open world.
A lot has been said at this point about how Scarlet’s and Violet’s performance underlines the need for a Switch Pro/Switch 2. The hardware is old – six years in March! – and underperforms compared to the consoles of last generation, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. I’m sure some of Scarlet’s and Violet’s hiccups are due to hardware limitations, but there are other (and older) Switch games that look markedly better, an obvious example being The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Part of the reason Pokémon Scarlet and Violet look pretty ‘meh’ is due to the lack of a really engaging art style. The ‘mons look great, but the biomes and cities are all pretty bland. Often defined and beautiful art styles can elevate otherwise graphically underwhelming games, but that’s not the case here.
Despite its subpar performance, bland environments, and minimal new gameplay additions… I’m still loving the hell out of this game. I’m addicted. 50 hours in three weeks? When I sleep, I dream of Pokémon. Work? Who needs it – I’m playing Pokémon. Okay, so those statements aren’t true, but you get the point. This game is addicting and damn fun. The excitement of observing a rare Pokémon out in the wild, capturing a unique tera Pokémon, thrashing meager trainers and gym leaders alike, traversing on the back of the games’ mascots – there’s a lot of fun to be had here! Pokémon Scarlet and Violet may not be my pick for game of the year, but, as I near the end of my journey in Paldea, I can’t help but want more. An expansion pack would be wholly welcomed by this trainer, at least.
I’m sure the abundance of technical issues will get in the way of enjoying these games for some, but, personally, I’m choosing to enjoy Pokémon Scarlet and Violet for what they are while acknowledging the ways they could be better. This generation of Pokémon may not be the best, but I love it nonetheless. With Pokémon Legends: Arceus and now Scarlet and Violet, 2022 has been a huge year for Pokémon, and I’m excited to see how the series evolves next.
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